On Crying-it-out Experts, But Not On Crying-it-out

And now for a slightly off topic vent.

If you’re a parent, especially a parent who has spent any time at all on Facebook or online parenting forums, I’m sure you know just how controversial the topic of sleep can get. Not your sleep, of course, though that is directly affected here (either by your baby waking up in the wee hours of the morning, or by your fuming over forum posts you read the night before) – but your baby, toddler or child’s sleep. Where should they sleep – in their crib, in their own room, in your room, in your bed, in a bassinet? And how should you put them to bed at night – nurse them or feed them a bottle; lay them down and let them cry; rock them to sleep; lie with them until they fall asleep? And then! What to do if they awaken in the middle of the night? Do you pop a boob in their mouth and go back to sleep? Walk down the hall, feed them in the rocking chair, and put them back to bed? Bring them into your bed? Give them a soother or teach them to suck their thumb? Let them cry while you watch on a video monitor? Let them cry but it doesn’t matter because you’re oblivious because they’re two stories away and you’ve shut off the monitor? It about makes your head spin, even if you were well-rested in the first place (which, and let’s be honest here, most parents with kids under 18 months are not, regardless of which of the previous options they may choose on any given night).

BUT – this post is not about which of these options is right. That is because 1) I can’t tell you that, because I don’t know your baby, and even if I did, I’m not your baby’s mom (or dad – dad’s have instincts too!); and 2) there are tons of great articles and studies out there already, and I don’t need to reiterate all of that (see: Babies and CIO from Ask Moxie, potential affects of crying it out from Dr. Sears’ webpage as a start).

No, this post is about the experts who teach cry-it-out, “extinction” (is it just me, or is that the most unfortunate name? If I were a “sleep training” teacher, I would choose a different word for PR purposes!) or controlled crying.

Now, parenting experts are… well… erm… Well let’s just say you want to be choosy. They’re a dime a dozen, and it really boils down to what their methods are based on and whether science backs them up, plus, most importantly, whether it matches your instincts and your particular baby’s needs (keeping mind that just because it worked for your first child… and/or second… and/or third, and so on, that doesn’t mean it will work for subsequent children). But no matter the day and age, whether it’s due to uncertainty in our abilities as new parents, nagging from friends or family, or even, sometimes, post partum depression, there will always be parents who are really looking for guidance, and when they find someone who makes a convincing pitch, they may go right against their instincts and follow the advice of that expert.

So as a first step, like I said: trust your baby, trust yourself. But, failing that…

Be careful when choosing an expert, and when choosing whether or not to follow their suggestions. In this post, specifically, I’m talking about the nature of the relationship they set up between you and your baby. Whether reading a book or taking a class, here are a couple of red flags to watch for:

1) Talk to other people who have used the method. How do they speak of their children? Is it the type of relationship you want with your child, especially long-term? If you hear other parents who are currently following the method referring to their child as a “monster” (though many of us joke about this on bad days, is it an overarching theme to their relationship?); or saying things like “we’ve been enabling this habit” (is your baby a tiny heroin addict?), “Don’t let him win the battle” (uhhhhhhh) or “She knows just how to get away with this,” I’d say it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d feel okay saying that about your spouse or a close friend. And…. if you would… well, you might want to look at the health of that particular relationship.

2) Read the language used in the literature or on the website. Is this expert setting you up to “win”? Do they use language that is reminiscent of war, coercion or training an animal? Again, these are things to consider in advance.

3) Then again, of course, you may not see any of this language on the website (they may use terms like “the gift of sleep” or other things that sound perfectly wonderful, and it’s difficult sometimes to tell just what these marketing terms are referring to), or hear it from their graduates (oftentimes, similar to an abuse situation, disturbingly, these experts will advise their students not to tell anyone that they have taken their class, are using the method, or even use the language around people – GIANT red flag right there!) – in which case, you have to watch for it in the actual class.

4) As mentioned earlier, try reframing: if you said, “My husband is a monster and I can’t seem to break him of this behaviour,” “My grandmother seems to think it’s okay to bother us in the night when she needs to use the washroom, and we just really need her to know who’s in charge,” or “My best friend is not going to win this battle with me,” would any of those sound okay to you? And again, if these are things you’re saying, I advise you think pretty deeply about the health of your relationships.

I know I’m going to get responses saying that it’s clear that I’m saying not to cry it out, as this is the type of language you hear from certain extreme sleep trainers. However, as I said earlier, this is not the case. I know lots of people for whom sleep training was very effective. I also know plenty of people who have been very successful with co-sleeping, and lots of ideas in between. But I don’t think, regardless of what you choose to do, this is appropriate language or framing for any loving relationship. So before choosing a class or book to follow for sleep advice with your child or baby, it’s worth asking yourself where you stand, and checking that their views are complementary.